Behind the Stare: Life in the Belgian Cross Village

Geoff Proctor's insider look at the cycling world's hottest part-time obsession

Title: Behind the Stare: The Pulse and Character of Professional European Cyclocross
Author: Geoff Proctor
Publisher: Deeds Publishing
Year: 2012
Pages: 300
Order: Here
What it is: A snapshot of the Belgian CX scene in 2007-08, deep inside the camps of the biggest stars.
Strengths: Proctor, a USA Cycling national team coach, illuminates the cyclocross world with his depth of knowledge and ability to get in close to stars like Nys, Vervecken, and Page.
Weaknesses: Too much dramatic tone. Also, things have changed in five years. Well... some things.

Winter -- that period of time defined by meteorologists as stretching from the end of the Lombardia podium ceremony to the sign-in for the Omloop -- can seem like a long time to your average cycling addict, if s/he is not properly prepared. We Americans, relative newcomers to the sport, can miss this point, find ourselves ill-suited for a winter of Tour de France reruns, and despairing for any sort of action by the time the Tour Down Under rolls around.

Elsewhere things are different. Cycling is hardly new in places like Belgium, and consequently the dilemmas we're just discovering have been identified and solved by Belgians decades ago. Need an excuse to drink beer on Easter weekend? Belgians got ya covered. See you at the Koppenberg. Can't think of what to do with your bike after the last road race of the summer? Belgians got ya there too. For as long as it's been physically possible to ride a bike through a muddy or snowy field, Belgians have been doing it. As have the French, and pretty much all of their closest neighbors. That's European Cyclocross, now well into its second century of existence.

The sport of cyclocross is a lot of things. It's the sport that can't claw its way into the Olympics... yet. It's the sport where the top seven spots at the World Championships (elite Men's division) went to one nation last year. It's the sport I have to constantly explain to people in the US what it is.

Slowly cyclocross is becoming a big deal, even in the US, as any bike manufacturer will tell you. Well, bigger anyway. But in fact the pinnacle of the professional realm of the sport is quite small. This will come as no surprise to fans who watch Sven Nys and Niels Albert duel week after week, comfortably ahead of a less famous horde of chasers who never seem to catch up. That's an exaggeration, of course, but the smallness of the sport's winner's circle is a reflection of the sport itself. For us who wandered over from the road cycling universe, cyclocross is like a lovely winter village nestled in some comfortable place where we can sit and enjoy ourselves with no regrets til the sun starts to shine again.

First-time author and US National team coach Geoff Proctor wanders into that village in his new book Behind the Stare: The Pulse and Character of Professional European Cyclocross, a journal of the 2007-08 CX season in Belgium as seen through the eyes of the sport's biggest stars. And like any stroll around a village, it's not long before it feels like he's taken in the whole place.

Proctor is no ordinary author, he's a guy with incredible access to his subject, and what could have been a book-form explainer of this hidden gem of a sport is something else entirely. By spending time with the stars, from a couple days with Sven Nys to working the pits for World Champion Erwin Vervecken to spending time with Jonathan Page and family... all of this transforms the book into something much more than "what's cyclocross?" The end product is a deep look at what it's like to be among the handful of big winners in the sport, as Proctor follows the biggest fish in the small pond from one aspect of their life to another.

Part of this dynamic stems undoubtedly from the author's participation, which earns him access to the sport beyond a typical journalist. But it also has something to do with the size of the village he's exploring. This is a sport which gets broadcast internationally but whose stars travel in self-decorated campers advertising their presence. It's a sport where almost all of the pit crews for each top rider consist of each rider's dad.

It's also a sport where the top echelon is its own very exclusive club. Compared to road, where several dozen guys take a turn in the hero's cape as the season progresses, cyclocross's podium is a nearly impenetrable place, guarded by two or three riders at any one time. So when Proctor chooses to tell what it's like to be in the hunt for glory, it's no mystery as to who he should hang out with. The result is a series of extended visits with the champions of 2007-08, which is not a bad way to tell the story of the sport. If Sven Nys is training alone, sleeping in an oxygen tent, and doing massive reps in a forest near Antwerp during the week, that's a pretty good window on what it's like to do what these guys do.

Mostly the book is easy to get into. Most of the time Proctor lets his characters do the talking when he's not just passing on his observations in a familiar, insider style that's satisfying to read. Everyone goes by their first name. You feel like you're in the room. What tripped me up, though, were the not infrequent, sorta clunky turns of phrase. At one point Proctor is on hand for one of Nys' workouts with coach Paul Van Den Bosch when Bart Wellens happens by. Van Den Bosch takes it as a sign that Wellens is casually spying on his rival.

What's important to Paul is that in his head, in Sven's head, Bart is in some way following their lead by coming here.

To the bos. To be the boss. Of 'cross.

Nope. The thing is, these attempts at injecting flash are unnecessary. The book's prevalent style works. These pithy phrasings, even if he pulled them off, would still only interrupt the successful structure of the book. So there's that. But it's a nitpicky concern. As is the book's other fault: it's five years out of date. Would it be better if Proctor had written from the inside of the 2011 season? Sure... I think. But 2007-08 was a pretty colorful season, with an early decade old guard -- Vervecken, Groenendal -- giving way to a new wave led by Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar, connected by the masterful Sven Nys and the pop figure of Bart Wellens. Half those guys are still around, still very relevant, so in actuality the book isn't fatally delayed and the subject matter is maybe worth the wait.

This is a good read, a solid primer on the sport and its protagonists. It's as fun as any book about the Belgian cyclocross scene should be. And when foreword author Sven Nys says he hopes to follow Proctor into coaching, when Sven says to the American audience "see you in the field," well, what more do you need?

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